The expanding accessibility options included in the Google Android operating system, plus a wide array of affordable mobile devices that run the Android OS, have made the platform an increasingly popular choice for those looking for a smartphone or tablet. Since Android is an open operating system, deployed by a number of manufacturers on their phones and tablets, buyers can choose from an array of hardware, without having to wonder whether the gadget they like best is accessible. In addition to the TalkBack screen reader, Android's recent versions allow users with low vision to build their own accessible experiences using a combination of settings for changing the way the screen looks. A few vendors, including Samsung, have even added accessibility tools of their own to the stock Android environment.
But as accessible as your Android phone or tablet may be out of the box, there's a whole world of apps available that you can use to customize the way your device screen looks, increase your productivity, and even deploy the built-in camera to get a closer look at the world around you. The vast Google Play store includes many apps you can buy or download for free, that you can use to customize your mobile device. In this article, we'll take a look at some of the best apps for Android users with low vision. Keep in mind that there are many more accessible apps that work well with the TalkBack screen reader, and also provide great productivity for both those with visual impairments. Our focus here is on apps that support a low-vision Android user experience, and also make it possible to use a phone or tablet as a visual assistant. For more apps that are accessible to blind and low-vision users, check out the community website, Inclusive Android, where members rate and review a wide range of Android hardware and software.
Know Your Android OS
Because Android runs on such a wide array of devices, it isn't surprising that a number of versions of the OS are in circulation. That's important because not all accessibility features and apps are available on all OS versions. Though previous Android versions have provided accessibility options, version 5, also called Lollipop, marked a particularly important gain for users with low vision, who benefit from tweaking a device's visual interface. Lollipop (and its successor, Marshmallow) added the ability to invert the colors on your device screen, providing a dark background under light text and icons. If this is a feature you wish to use, or if you want to use apps that accomplish the same task, be sure you have Lollipop (or later) installed. It's also a good idea to check your Accessibility settings to see whether the maker of your device has added options of its own. Samsung, for example, has done this, and other device makers offer their own keyboards, and speech engines, which might be useful to you, but which you'll want to compare to the stock Android offerings in those categories.
Enhance Your View of the World Around You
The camera on your mobile device can do a lot more than take snapshots. You can use a variety of apps to turn your device into an electronic magnifier, a scanner, or an object and color identifier. Though we're focusing on apps for users with low vision, the scanning and identification apps listed here are also accessible with TalkBack, making them great choices for those with complete vision loss.
AMagnify from MPaja
AMagnifiy (free or $1.31, Android 2.2 or later) uses your device's camera to zoom in on what it is pointed at. Magnify text, freeze the image you've taken, and invert the magnified image. The paid version removes ads. You will find many magnification apps in the Google Play store. AMagnifiy is a great choice because it is both extremely simple to use and offers great features.
Smart Magnifier from Smart Tools Co.
Use Smart Magnifier (free, Android 2.3 or later) as a full-screen magnifying glass, or concentrate the enlarged area in a smaller section of the screen. Onscreen controls make it easy to zoom, auto-focus, freeze, and flip magnified images, or to use your device's LED flash to add more light.
Office Lens from Microsoft
The scanner app Office Lens (free, version varies with device) from Microsoft is designed to allow you to scan whiteboards, business cards, photos, or other single-page items you might encounter in business or educational situations. Use OCR to capture text, and save your scanned files in Microsoft Office apps, or as a PDF. You can save your scans to Microsoft's OneNote or OneDrive services. You'll find plenty of scanning and OCR apps in the Play Store. Office Lens excels at making quick scans, cropping your images intelligently, and sending them out into the Microsoft ecosystem.
TapTapSee from CamFind Inc.
Take a picture of an object, and use TapTapSee's (free with in-app purchases, version varies by device) combination of automated and human resources to get identifying information. Find out the color of the shirt you've chosen, or whether you've pulled a lime or lemon from the fridge, and lots more.
Stock Android allows the user to change the size of screen fonts, and to magnify your view of the screen by zooming in on it. You can download third-party apps that customize specific parts of your home screen and app experience. You may find that the size of icons, the layout of the keyboard, or the style of notifications, for example, are challenging, while other parts of the interface either don't need adjustment, or can be viewed effectively by making changes to accessibility settings. Or, you can go further, by replacing the default Android launcher, a program that controls the way app icons, backgrounds, homescreen text, and the app tray appear onscreen. Some launchers integrate with text-enlarged versions of apps for reading mail, sending SMS messages, and making phone calls.
BIG Launcher from Big Launcher
BIG Launcher ($10, Android 2.1 or later) is a simplified Android launcher, with large icons and text, and a choice of color themes. Your homescreen is replaced by a thick-lined grid, with room for just a few apps, each of which has an extra-large icon. When you tap a BIG Launcher icon, you'll see simplified and greatly enlarged views for making calls, sending SMS, viewing contacts, accessing mail, and more. The developer, Big Launcher, offers a number of apps that work with the launcher, and that utilize the same extra-large, bright icons, text, and colors. You can choose font size, color themes, and which icons should appear on the home screen (other apps appear in an alphabetical list, behind a single icon.) And you can disable unneeded apps. Some users may find BIG Launcher's appearance and approach to be overly simplistic. Others, who may have less experience with, or interest in, tech gadgets, may find it pleasingly straightforward. The app is marketed as a tool for seniors, many of who might not have used a smartphone before.
MessageEase Keyboard from Exideas
Designed to help you type faster, and with as few fingers as possible, MessageEase (free, Android 2.2 or later) is an alternative onscreen keyboard for your device. You can use it instead of the default Google device keyboard, or you can launch it for specific tasks, like typing texts, and return to the usual keyboard when you're done. MessageEase uses large letters, arranged based on how frequently you're likely to type a particular one. The R key will be near at hand, while you might have to reach a bit to find the Z, for example. You can also customize the keyboard's layout and color scheme.
Giganticon from Gabriel Taubman
Though you can use the built-in zoom feature to magnify your view of items on the device screen, you might find it easier to make some or all of your app icons bigger. To use Giganticon (free, Android 2.2 or later), install it and select an app whose icon you want to enlarge. You'll have to choose each individually.
Choose notifications to appear on your device, even while locked. NoLED (free, Android 2.1 or later) displays icons representing e-mail, SMS, voicemail, Google Talk, and an array of other apps. Choose the ones you want to see onscreen, and adjust their color, hue, and saturation. Though the icons themselves are small, you can pick just those that are the most important to you, choose colors that are easy for you to see, and position them to appear where you like when a notification arrives.
Shades, from Eyes-Free Project
Bright displays can be challenging for those with sensitivity to light. If you typically turn your screen brightness to a low setting, and still find that it allows too much light in, Shades (free) may be useful. It allows you to reduce the brightness of your screen below the typical level set by the hardware. As a side benefit, lower brightness saves battery life.
Reading and Writing
The selection of apps available for writing and reading on your Android device is vast. With built-in accessibility features and font options within individual apps, you can use almost any mainstream app that handles text. Here are a couple of tools specifically designed for accessible text wrangling.
Accessible Editor Talkback, Philosoft
Philosoft produces a number of apps for making standard mobile features more accessible (others include a phone dialer, SMS text app, and a reading app). Accessible Editor (free, Android 4.0 and later) lets you enter text via the keyboard or with your voice. Edit and view what you enter using one of several large font sizes, or have it read to you. You can choose which speech engine and voices you want to apply, as well. Combine with the same developer's Accessible Keyboard, which is also free, to get an extra-large QWERTY keyboard.
@Voice Aloud Reader from Hyperionics Technology
Even if you don't use TalkBack, you may wish to use speech to read specific books, articles, webpages and other text. Once the @Voice Aloud Reader app (free or $4.99 without ads, Android version varies by device) and a text-to-speech engine are installed, you will be able to save documents, webpages, or other text to the app, from within a web browser or reading app. Once you've saved items to read, use @Voice Aloud Reader to navigate through, and hear your text read aloud, using the speech engine and voice you've chosen.
Mainstream Apps with Low-Vision-Friendly Options
Sometimes, a great accessible app is one that just happens to provide exceptional support for features already available in Android. Large icons, rich font and color settings, or the ability to add voice commands in areas where they don't already exist end up being useful to everyone.
A Better Camera from Almalence
Here's an example of an app with lots of features that's also easy to use. A Better Camera (free light version or $1.99 for full version, Android 4.0 or later) helps you take better photos with your Android device, and gives you access to a number of settings to help you focus on what you see in your viewfinder. A grid with bright, thick lines helps you center images and keep subjects aligned in the viewfinder, while large buttons surrounding the image area give you access to settings for burst photography, night mode, video, focus, ISO selections, and more.
Commandr for Google Now, from RSenApps
Google Now is probably already on your device. Access it from the Google app, and use "OK Google" to search your device, and the web, by voice. Commandr for Google Now (free Android 4.1 and later) allows you to add many new voice commands. Play specific music, open apps, use a flashlight, take a selfie, and lots more.
Total Commander, from C. Ghisler
One of the ways you can customize your Android experience, not to mention boosting productivity, is to install a file manager. These apps allow you to upload and download files from computers, cloud services, Internet services, and other mobile devices. In addition to providing a number of ways to move files, Total Commander (free, Android 1.5 or later) is accessible to TalkBack, and includes options to customize the color scheme, text size, and even the font used.
The Platform Grows Richer
Until recently, conventional wisdom held that the Apple iOS, found on the iPhone and iPad, was a better operating system for users with visual impairments. Developers seemed to believe this too, since many important accessible apps have not migrated to the Android platform. Happily, this is changing, with announcements in 2015 that important blindness-focused apps are now in the Google Play store. In addition to following the links in this article, search the store for those apps you might have been waiting for, or for tools that do things you were previously unable to find. There's a lot out there to like.
- Digital Task Management Solutions: Barriers to Accessibility are Barriers to Productivity and Convenience by John Lilly and Olivia Milam
- CrowdViz: Remote Video Assistance on your iPhone by Bill Holton
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